Elliott Bradley Goldberg's Bar Mitzvah Speech June 28, 2003
Good Shabbos! I’d like to ask you all a question today. Do any of you remember the TV show or the series of movies called Mission Impossible? Remember that theme music? In both the show and the movie, the main character assembles his team of spies to accomplish the mission. In the same way, in this week’s Torah portion, Shelach, 12 spies are also given a special mission.
In the parsha, we learn many lessons from the story of these spies and the commandment of tzitzit. Before this time, the Jews were in the wilderness for two years and had already received the Torah. Originally, the Jews were supposed to enter the land of Israel at that point. But before the Jewish nation enters, G-d commands Moses to send 12 spies to scout the land of Israel. When the spies return, ten of them give false, evil reports about the land. These ten spies believed that it was impossible to conquer the land, even with G-d on their side. They tell stories about how there are great powerful nations dwelling in the land like the children of Anak, who were a nation of giants! If you analyze the story of these spies telling these false reports to the Jews, it is very similar to that of the tabloids, like the National Inquirer, the Star, and the Globe. They usually try to grab your attention by saying some wacky title like "Loch Ness monster found in New Jersey" or other claims that a seemingly-impossible event actually happened.
Today, we have a choice like the Jews back then. We can believe what hear around us, whether it is true or not, and face the consequences for what we say, hear or even believe about others. And sometimes, the slander about others is the majority belief, as in this week’s parsha, where the slander about the land was with the majority, and the truth was with the minority. This occurs with two of the spies; Joshua, son of Nun, and Caleb, son of Yephunah, when they gave good and true reports. Joshua and Caleb both believed that the nation could conquer the land with G-d’s help. When slander was spread, Caleb and Joshua tried to stop it.
I think this action, doing the right thing, is what Judaism is all about. We must do what we think is right, no matter how much we are up against. Over the centuries, the Jews have been up against many adversities like war, poverty, hunger, genocide and much more. This is why we need strong, moral and confident leaders, like Joshua and Caleb, to be role models for us and to guide us on the right path and do the right thing in the eyes of ourselves and in the eyes of G-d.
But when Joshua and Caleb did the right thing by trying to stop the spread of slander, it unfortunately didn’t work. A famous passage from Ethics of our Fathers, which I studied in Oral Torah, was one of my favorite subjects in school. This passage says "Schar averah averah," which means,"...one sin leads to another sin." When the spies spread slander, it caused the people to murmur against G-d and lose faith in him.
For this, G-d then punished the Jews by making them wander in the desert for 38 more years, even after they repented. Why? I think it was done to get the Jews to set their priorities straight. They chose physical well being over their spiritual level as a people. The Jews had a choice to go ahead with full faith in G-d or have no faith in him after all the miracles he did for them. Unfortunately, the Jews made the wrong choice, which caused them to suffer this harsh punishment. But could have this not been their fault? Was it only part of some greater plan?
A philosophical question involving this topic is asked by Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, who lived in Spain during the 12th century. The question is: if G-d knows everything, past, present and future, doesn’t it basically render our free will meaningless? Since He knows what choices we will make, is it part of some bigger plan? G-d always wants us to make the right decisions, no matter what our destiny is. I believe this is the doctrine of being a bar mitzvah. As young adults in the Jewish community, we are responsible for our own actions. We should try to control what we do in life, no matter what happens to us. Our choices should be in conjunction with our mind and heart. Our heart should not be out of balance with our mind, like the greedy executives of Enron. And we all know what ultimately happened to them!
What I’m trying to say here is that just having a big Bar Mitzvah party by itself isn’t what the occasion is all about. You just don’t say a barucha over the Torah and, "poof," you become an adult. You have to gradually mature over time into a man whose whole character develops and whose role evolves in the community. This reminds of something that my grandfather, who is blessed to be here today, has said: "Life gives you golden opportunities disguised as unsolvable problems." We must grasp those opportunities that are put before us and use them to our advantage.
Meanwhile, back in the parsha, Joshua and Caleb seized on this opportunity to try and stop the spread of slander about the land. In reward for their efforts on this "impossible mission", they were honored by becoming leaders of Israel in the future. It shows me, as a bar mitzvah, that I can do anything to which I put my mind to. I know it will be a tough road and a long journey, but I can instill it in my heart to do what I know will make me successful.
For example, I might choose to become a lawyer, and defend the constitutional rights of people who think their rights have been violated. Or maybe I’ll form a company and redefine what it means to be an entrepreneur. Or, who knows - maybe I’ll become a Rabbi, move to Israel, raise a family, and become as close to G-d as possible.
I have big plans for the future, but for right now, I just want to be a kid. Unfortunately, this can no longer be entirely so. I still remember the first time I tried to put on Tfillin and how I was so excited. But I was inexperienced since I didn’t know how to put them on correctly. Now, those of you who attend the daily minyan have probably have seen me change. I have grown to be an experienced member, sometimes even leading the service. I understand my role and place in the community and seek to fulfill my responsibilities.
One of these responsibilities of a Bar Mitzvah, mentioned in this parsha, is the commandment of tzitzit. This mitzvah reminds us of our constant faith in G-d. It is interesting because it refers to the time when the Jews lacked faith. If you look at the word tzitzit, the numerical value of its Hebrew letters corresponds to 600. When we add the 8 strings and 5 knots of each fringe, we come with the number 613, which is the number of commandments that are in the Torah. It makes me feel proud to be Jewish, follow these commandments, and be considered an adult even at 13, ready to take on this new mission of being a man. And finally, there are many people whom I have to acknowledge for serving on my own personal "Impossible Mission Force."
First of all, I want to thank you, Rabbi Weisblum for helping me prepare for this day. Rabbi, it has been an honor working with you. Next, I want to thank Sam Rubin who also helped be get ready for my Bimah experience. Next, I want to thank my friends and family who have traveled from near and far to be here with me today. Some of you have come from as far as California and Florida; I appreciate that you all have made this trip for me.
Next, I want to dedicate this speech to my Grandpa Harold Saldinger and my Grandma Shirley Goldberg, both of Blessed Memory, who are looking down on me proudly from Heaven. Grandma and Grandpa, I miss you very much. And, I want to thank Grandma Rose Saldinger and Grandpa Is Goldberg, who are here with us today, for guiding me and supporting my endeavors. You both have always been there for me, and hopefully in the future, I will always be there for you.
Next, I must thank my teachers from Aleph Bet Jewish Day School and Beth Tfiloh Middle School for their inspiration and what they have taught me, for showing me what I need to know to get through life, and what it means to be a Jew. What I have learned from you goes beyond money or material wealth.
Finally, I thank my mom and dad -- and Almighty G-d -- for encouraging and supporting me for all these years. Mom and Dad, I’ll try to listen to you more often, even when times are bad, just like the Jews should have listened to Joshua and Caleb during the story of the spies.
And, happily, I’m proud to say my Mission Impossible team and I have now completed this mission today. But before the show ends and the credits roll, stay tuned for the next impossible mission that my team and I await. And what might that me? I’ll give you a clue. ("Pomp and Circumstance" from Sir Edgar Elgar is hummed).
But wait, this mission isn’t over yet! Let’s finish the service so we can move into the social hall for Kiddush. Thank you all again for coming. This speech will self destruct in five seconds. Shabbat Shalom!